Images of a Distant Land
I opened my eyes, a gray haze of dreams still clouding my thoughts. Trying to register where I was, I listened to the distant mumbling of a Turkish voice over the intercom before finally hearing, “Ladies and gentleman, we have arrived in Islamabad.”
Exiting the plane down a long flight of stairs towards an overcrowded bus, the familiar smells of gas and smog evoked nostalgic memories as if they were long-lost friends. Moments later, I reminded my uncle that we were driving on the wrong side of the road as we zoomed North along the Motorway. After far too many years, the foothills of the Himalayas rose up in the distance to reveal the city of Islamabad, blanketed by a thick cloud of dust and pollution.
As a small child, my family travelled to Pakistan quite frequently. Yet the pricier airfare, hotter summers, and time-consuming pressures of school and work made my trip this past winter the first in almost half a decade. Such is the dilemma of many a diaspora community, yearning to return to their ancestral homeland to relive and reestablish a sense of groundedness in their culture. But beyond seeing family and eating well, staying in Pakistan allowed me to revisit my own identity in a personal, physical way that calling family members on the phone could not replicate. Whether exploring my Pashtun and Punjab ancestry or glimpsing the ancient structures of Taxila and Rohtas, the visit represented an expedition to explore the intricate history behind the rich nation that defines my heritage.
The country came alive in the streets as I retraced the steps my parents walked in their youth. On a humid Wednesday morning, I set foot upon broken pavement, a weathered, red archway looming before me. The noise of cows, rickshaws, and vans packing the streets behind me slowly faded, giving way to sweeping green lawns dotted with colossal, gnarled trees and delicately-trimmed hedges. Hidden within these old walls was the Maqbara of Jahangir, fourth emperor of the Mughals, and my first taste of the magnificent Lahore. Although my father had spent his university days in this millennia-old city, the location was always just an idea to me, fictional stories in a Kipling novel or paintings on a wall. I recall poring over countless books when I was younger, gazing upon the glossy images of details in the ornate carvings on the ceilings of the Wazir Khan mosque, and sketches of elephants in front of Lahore Fort. No longer were these sites words on a page or pixels rendered upon a screen. The calls of Azan thundered through the acoustically-pristine chambers of the Badshahi Masjid. I ventured beneath the ground to study the geometric designs lining the newly-uncovered Shahi Hammam steam baths. An old wind rustled my hair as I mounted a rumbling rickshaw in the thick of noon traffic to travel from the Minar-e-Pakistan to the Walled City. From the centuries-old ramparts of Lahore Fort to the ever-changing scent of spices wafting from street shops, Lahore had overnight transformed from a simple image of a distant land into a living, heaving metropolis.
Months prior to my arrival in Lahore, I had trudged through the Urdu and Farsi poetry of the renowned poet and scholar Allama Iqbal. Pakistanis across the world hold Iqbal and his poetry in the highest regard, a symbol of philosophy and religiosity who pioneered the very idea of the nation of Pakistan. Few are customarily allowed to enter Iqbal’s closely-guarded tomb in Lahore, but after our tour guide pulled a few strings, we gained entry into this national mausoleum. And there, beneath the ornate red brick and white marble, lay the body of Iqbal, creator of that beautiful Urdu and Persian poetry whose words provided spiritual sustenance and immense pride for countless Pakistanis. Offering my prayers in the small chamber, I recalled one line of his poetry: “Fabric of earth and wind and wave! Who is the secret, you or I, brought into light? Or who the dark world of what hides yet, you or I?” As my mind drifted through space and time, I began to realize that the immortal words of the great poet were rooted in the life of a mortal man who had walked the same land through which I was travelling. No longer was Iqbal just beautiful script written on the leaves of my grandfather’s books.
Beyond the physical, Pakistan allowed me to express my linguistic and cultural identity. Arriving at my mother’s home in Islamabad, I immediately noticed a change in my interactions with others. Everyone around me was speaking my mother-tongue, Pashto, and my mind and speech quickly adapted to this sudden change. Back in the states, the only semblance of my Pashtun identity is found when wearing a patoo, a traditional Pashtun shawl, and pakol, a woolen hat worn in Pakistan’s colder months. Beyond daily phone conversations with my mother, I’ve never had a proper outlet to express my Pashtun side, even with other members of the Pakistani diaspora. The few 16,000 Pashto speakers in the US are largely concentrated in California, New York, and Virginia, far from the Afghani or Pakistani communities I engage with in Cleveland and Chicago.
Spending just one day with extended family allowed me to interact with others in ways I had never before, from calling my cousins to eat (“Rasha, tikkala okhra”), to being ridiculed for my long hair (“Vikhtu prey ka”), to sauntering up to my uncle, firmly grabbing him by the shoulder and asking “Nor alaquh?” (What’s up dude?). I was in an environment where others would perfectly understand a slew of idioms and phrases, while translating those same words into English, Urdu, or Farsi would make little sense. Speaking Pashto brightened the tone of my voice and quickened the pace of my speech, in the process revealing a bolder, more carefree version of myself than when I speak Urdu or English. Like hiking up the Margalla Hills or exploring the underground crypt of Noor Jahan, discovering my linguistic identity provided a linguistic journey to couple the physical one. “Tsi ki dum ki ah-ooboo shi”: what needed to happen happened.
Back in Lahore, I found myself ascending the minarets of the Wazir Khan Masjid. The city stretched endlessly into the distance, bustling crowds pushing their way through teeming bazaars, donkeys falling under the weight of their owners’ wares, and hawks soaring through the skies, circling around the bright, crescent-starred Pakistani flags. This was not some orientalist’s fantastical interpretation of an exotic land but a collection of histories, peoples and dialects forming the fabric of a nation. Over the past centuries, this nation had become a vessel filled with a vast trove of culture, from the intricate edifices of the Mughals to the glistening valleys of Gilgit, from the pulsing rhythms of the Sufi Qawwals to the fluttering tongues of the Pashtuns. And at the same time, here was the nation in which I found my own history, my own language, my own identity.
THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2017 ISSUE.